Creativity

The Only Girl: the search for female sound engineers

I was always odd, the resident freak or weirdo in any situation. And then I became a sound engineer. As a woman, that makes me exceptional. There aren’t many of us, so when I heard about Laura Marling’s latest project, Reversal of the Muse, I gave a cheer. It’s about time there were more ladies rocking a mixing desk.

Reversal of the Muse came about when the award winning singer-songwriter realised that in 10 years of making records she had only come across two female engineers working in studios. So she decided to dig deeper and explore female creativity in the music industry. Why are there so few female sound engineers and would the presence of more women in the studio make a difference to the end product – especially for female performers?

Reversal of the Muse

To answer these questions, Laura Marling has been talking to various women in the music industry and the results will be available as podcasts on the Reversal of the Muse website. So far, she has spoken to Vanessa Parr, in-house engineer at Village Studios in LA, and the band HAIM.

The project was inspired by what Marling calls her “Holy Trinity”: Lou Salomé, the first female psychoanalyst; Anaïs Nin, the first woman to write erotica; and Leonora Carrington, the surrealist painter who gave the project its title – Carrington was too busy trying to be the best artist she could be, saying she didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse.

Women are often depicted as ‘the muse’ and rarely as ‘the creator’, so Marling set out to explore how female creativity works in practice: “Reversing the muse means taking away the subjugating role of being the object,” she said. She had a lot of interesting things to say about the idea of being a muse and what it does to you, especially as a creative artist, in her talk at Girls Music Day. I’ll delve more into that in another post, but here I want to talk about what happens when you step into a recording studio – as a woman.

keep-calm-i-m-a-sound-engineer-7

A Man’s World

A recording studio is a very male environment. The joke I am contractually obliged to include here is that a recording studio is full of knobs. (Sorry) Now I’ve got that out of my system, we can be grown-ups…

Marling says she has never suffered in the male-dominated world of recording studios because she’s quite headstrong: “even when I was shy I was stubborn.” But she realised that in entering the studio she had to find a way to step out of the role of being the ‘untouchable feminine object’, and become an equal collaborator in the creative process. Not an easy thing to do, especially when you consider she started her recording career at the age of 16. A recording studio can be an intimidating environment at the best of times, and then you add in all those knobs, and well…

After having a guitar lesson with a woman teacher, she realised how different the experience was – she didn’t feel stupid making mistakes and found it easier to talk and learn. This got her wondering about the recording process and whether having a female engineer would make that easier too. Hence her quest.

What she has discovered so far isn’t that surprising: “women are obviously just as capable as men at doing that exact job.” Also, she started out with the idea that the studio was a man’s world, but has realised that it isn’t. There’s no reason why it should be. But that belief has often stopped her from making bold choices and speaking up for herself in that environment.

According to Sound Girls, female studio engineers make up only 5% of the total, and only three women have ever been nominated for best producer at the Brits or Grammys. The first woman to win a Grammy for sound engineering was Trina Shoemaker, for her work with Sheryl Crow in 1998. Susan Rogers, studio engineer for Prince and many others, says that women who become sound engineers face a “boy’s club or guild mentality”:

“It’s a renegade profession, it’s an outlaw profession… You have to have a lot of swagger. If you don’t, you won’t be successful.”

Shoemaker
Trina Shoemaker at the mixing desk

The Only Girl

When I went to college to study music in the dim and hazy days of 1989, I was the only girl in my class. All through the first year, the boys kept asking me: “So, what’s it like being the only girl?!

It annoyed me. Not the fact I was the only girl, that was a non-event as far as I was concerned because – brace yourself for a shocking revelation – I don’t think with my genitals. No, it annoyed me because it shouldn’t have been an issue. So I’m a girl. So what?

I should say that I wasn’t studying on an engineering course and there were other girls in the years above me, amounting to a handful in total. The course was one of the first performing arts degrees back in the day when there were only three places you could do it: Leeds, Newcastle, and Salford. I ended up in Newcastle, a fateful decision, but that’s another story.

I was studying Jazz, Popular and Commercial music, my instruments being piano and keyboards, flute and saxophone, and I took music tech as one of my extra modules. The music technology students (all boys) seemed to be having more fun than everybody else and I wanted to get in on the action. In fact, I had wanted to be a sound engineer since I was 13.

It was the early 80s and me and one of my best friends, Jamie Lamper, had written a (bad) song. He sang and I did the keyboards, and there was a songwriting competition we wanted to enter. To do that we needed to record the song, so off we went around Brighton looking for a suitable (cheap) studio.

I’ll never forget the moment I walked into the first studio. It was way too expensive for our purposes, we just wanted to have a look. I entered the control room, the lights were dimmed, there was a man sitting at the mixing desk but I barely noticed him. I was too busy gawping at all the knobs (so sue me) and lights on the equipment. There was a sizeable desk, not one of the massive ones you get in the top-end studios, and a load of stuff in racks.

I thought: Yes, this is me. I want to do this.

And the dream was born.

Later I was given (false) careers advice by the school, who told me that I would need physics and maths A Level to be a sound engineer. I don’t know where they were getting their information, but it killed my dream. I decided to be a musician instead and ended up studying jazz in Newcastle in the early 90s.

But the dream didn’t die – the best dreams never do – and I discovered during my music tech lessons that I loved recording.

After leaving college I managed to get some work experience in a little project studio in Newcastle called Uncle Sams, and the engineer generously gave me some free time behind the desk. I got some of my old mates from college to record a couple of songs, and it went… wrong. I didn’t know what I was doing (watching somebody else record isn’t the same as doing it yourself, even if they explain it well) and I blew the speakers – just the tweeters, but it was embarrassing.

So I returned to college to do a music production course in the mid-90s and two years later began picking up occasional sessions as an engineer back at Uncle Sams – now called SAMS. (I think it was meant to stand for something, but I can’t remember – it’s gone now, shut down years ago.)

SAMS was a 24-track analogue studio with a 1” reel-to-reel and Tascam desk – proper old school stuff. It was in a basement around the corner from the cathedral in the centre of Newcastle. There were various engineers attached to the studio, changing all the time, and while I was there, the work was shared out between 4 or 5 of us. In reality there was barely enough work for even one engineer to pay his rent. This was precarious employment before it became ‘fashionable.’

Here are some old photos of the studio in all its grungy glory:

Control Room mixing desk
SAMS Control Room – I don’t know what the heads are, never did, never will…
Control Room outboard
Scuzzy outboard gear – doesn’t feature my favourite knob (yes, that’s a thing). The dedicated Roland reverb unit came later – best knob ever…
Live Room 1
Live Room
Live Room 2
Live Room with partly finished wood panelling. Nice.

One of the Boys

I worked at SAMS for two years recording demos with rock bands, folk singers, and kids hoping to become pop starlets (one did), and I had a great time. It was hard work – sometimes the sessions would run late and we wouldn’t finish until the early hours. I also sat in on sessions run by other, more experienced, engineers so I could learn, and one of those sessions literally ran through to the next day.

This might give us some clues as to why there are less women working in studios. The obvious answer could be that it’s quite technical and women, generally speaking, tend to be less interested in that kind of thing. There are women working in technical roles in radio, theatre and film – still not a lot, but the disparity is greater in the areas of rock and pop.

So it could be the long hours. The lifestyle this kind of work demands isn’t conducive to having a family. Many female engineers end up having to choose one or the other. This isn’t so different from other careers. Women face barriers getting back into work once they’ve had children more or less everywhere. But working in a studio involves a very particular pressure: you can’t just go home whenever you need to, you have to finish the session. The client is paying for you to be there and you have to get it done, even if it takes all night. Vanessa Parr talks about the “war-like mentality”, like you’re all in the bunker together. It’s an obsessive mentality, one that focuses on perfectionism and extreme attention to detail. All things men excel at.

The final possibility is the atmosphere. Although there’s no reason why a recording studio should be a male preserve, it generally is that way simply because there are more men in studios. So a woman in that environment is going to have to deal with a lot of shit. (Or knobs, if you prefer.)

Many of the women attracted to this line of work don’t appear to be girly girls. I’m not. Vanessa Parr isn’t. In her podcast with Laura Marling she talks about how you have to fit in with the band and deal with all the “palling around” that goes on. You have to be able to stand up for yourself. Trina Shoemaker agrees:

“If they’re a bunch of guys and they’re young and they’re funny and they tell rude jokes, you have to be a woman who isn’t shocked by that and can, as a matter of fact, crush them all with three words.”

That quote brings back happy memories!

I don’t suffer fools and I won’t put up with shit from anybody – even if you’re paying me to record your poxy demo. On two occasions in the studio, I kicked somebody out for being disruptive: “Either contribute or fuck off.”

Yes, my studio had a naughty step.

In fact, the bands I worked with often commented that they preferred having a female engineer because they got more done. There was less messing about and they were more productive. Aside from the occasional idiot (guitarist) getting overexcited, I never had any problems with attitude or people thinking I couldn’t do the job. Mainly because I could do the job – I wouldn’t have lasted very long otherwise.

However, there was often a moment of embarrassed confusion when a band arrived for the first day of the session. If they had booked over the phone and hadn’t visited before, they often assumed I was the receptionist. An A&R man from London dropped in one day scouting for talent, and when he realised I was the engineer, spent a good ten minutes mansplaining to me exactly why there was absolutely no reason why women couldn’t be sound engineers. Grrr!

My natural habitat
My natural habitat

The Future

Things are beginning to change within the industry and there are more women training to become sound engineers. The world has changed a lot since the 50s when Cordell Jackson first produced and engineered music for her own record label. It’s changed even more since the 90s, when digital recording was still in its infancy.

Now we live in a more technological age and computers are ubiquitous, so perhaps there’s less of a mental barrier to the idea of being an engineer. A lot of the work in studios is done on computers so there’s less of a leap: it may feel more familiar so might not be so intimidating, at least at entry level. I’m sure we’ll see many more female engineers in recording studios in the years to come.

Actually, technical knowhow aside, it may be the case that women make better sound engineers. Don’t all shout at once, let me explain. Yes, you have to hold your own and give as good as you get, and you have to have bigger balls than the boys, but let them believe theirs are the biggest. Well, women have been doing that for centuries!

But seriously, women have better hearing at the top end of the frequency range – something to do with listening out for babies crying (I wouldn’t know) – so they may hear with more clarity than men. Not only that, but working in a project studio meant I had to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, many of which involved what are called ‘soft skills.’ I was a friend, psychologist, therapist, nanny, slave-driver, time-manager, and mind reader.

This is how it works: the band arrives, all excited and perhaps a little nervous if it’s their first time. Within minutes you have to figure out the group dynamics and insert yourself seamlessly into their midst without disrupting the status quo. You’ve got to work out who is ‘in charge’ and who thinks he’s in charge, but isn’t.

A band is like a family: there’s a mum and a dad, and the kids, and possibly relatives if the band have brought hangers-on with them (girlfriends and such). The girlfriends rarely stay long; they get bored pretty fast once you start soundchecking the drums, and soon disappear to go shopping. Or something.

As fast as you can, you have to assess how well a particular musician can perform and how hard you need to push to get the best out of them. Some people need gentle coaxing, others respond better to – I hesitate to say bullying, but… well, strong words. You need to juggle all the egos and personalities and navigate the unspoken, and mostly unconscious, bullshit that gets in the way between people.

And you must do all this while watching the clock and keeping the session on track so you can get everything recorded and mixed before you run out of time. Oh, and do your actual job of recording the music.

It’s really not that hard. I mean, even men can do it.

Listen to the Reversal of the Muse podcasts here
Discover more about Women in Recording

Images: Shoemaker; Control Room

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16 thoughts on “The Only Girl: the search for female sound engineers

  1. There’s been something scratching at the back of my head since I read this post and I just remembered it. What’s even better is it gives me yet another (feeble) excuse to mention the greatest rock star the world has ever known.

    The Guardian journalist Mariella Frostrup was a tape operator (i.e. almost a sound engineer) on Iggy Pop’s Instinct album.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think woman are starting to rock the knob twiddling scene. I teach music production from my twiddle-tastic home studio (analogue desk, analogue synths and modulars etc). Recently the most accomplished students I have are almost all women; they’re recording there own compositions, learning to design and code sample software, shredding guitars and pumelling drum skins. Maybe it’s just where I live, but around here woman seem to be musically forging ahead. Do you still play and compose yourself?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Dave, and welcome!

      Glad to hear your twiddle-tastic studio is doing well and it’s good to hear that women are getting involved. These things just take time, I suppose.

      I don’t play anymore. I haven’t touched a keyboard for at least a decade. It’s a bit sad, but life had other ideas for me and I took a swerve in a different direction.

      Like

  3. Fair point on Sappho, thanks for that cabrogal.

    The more I thought about that claim for Nin the weirder it seemed.

    Her Wikipedia entry concedes she was preceded by Kate Chopin (without mentioning Ho Xuan Huong) but still claims she was “certainly the first prominent woman in the modern West known to write erotica”.

    Setting aside the fact she wasn’t known to write erotica until Delta of Venus was published in 1977 – well after female writers like Emmanuelle Arsan and Xaviera Hollander had become famous – even if you accept her claim that she originally wrote it in the 1940s she was still lagging at least one prominent woman by a couple of decades.

    Mae West was first charged with obscenity for her writing in 1927. And it wasn’t just double entendres either.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. BTW, if you’re ever in Vietnam and want to learn a bit of history, ask people about the street names.

          When I asked a very proper, middle aged cafe owner who Ho Xuan Huong was she turned red and giggled before saying “She wrote very naughty things”.

          The story of the Hai Ba Trung (two Trung sisters) is another bit of great feminist history that made its mark in every Vietnamese street directory.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Maths and physics? Hell, I did more than a decade in the studio and I can hardly tell an amp from a volt. As it happens I set up a women-only recording course in about 1990, EU funded I think, and it was well attended. We had to replace the female tutor with a guy after complaints, which spoilt the spirit of the thing a bit, but there was much enthusiasm. I think I’m right to say that the many people consider the best mastering engineer in the UK to be a woman, but I forget her name right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think to be considered a ‘proper’ engineer you would have to be able to take the gear apart and fix it when it goes wrong. I can’t do that – I’d have to get a man in!

      I would’ve liked to have attended that course, Peter. I think that’s the kind of thing Laura Marling is trying to encourage with her project.

      Like

  5. Anaïs Nin, the first woman to write erotica

    Sappho would have been surprised to hear that. Not to mention dozens if not hundreds of courtesans down through the ages.

    I don’t think with my genitals

    That just proves how girly you are.

    Do you reckon the gender ratio in sound engineering is any different from engineering as a whole? It sounds about the same as it was at the rockface of the IT industry when I was working there. My guess is that other than the obvious – generations of sexism in the workplace – it starts with the fact that guys are just more geeky than girls. There’s been some recent revisions of the estimates of gender disparity on the autism spectrum but us diagnosed aspies are still overwhelmingly male. Then once you’ve got heaps more geeks with dicks in the classroom and workplace it starts to develop a boy’s club atmosphere that tends to drive women away. It’s not just a bloke thing. I’m told the girl’s club atmosphere of the librarian and primary school teaching professions drives men away too. Not nursing though. It’s the shit pay and working conditions that keep us away from that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair point on Sappho, thanks for that cabrogal.

      The gender ratio is just as problematic in the sciences, maths, engineering, and probably IT as you say. It’s improving slowly and there’s lots of debate about why girls don’t seem to be interested. The whole nature/nurture thing.

      I know what you mean about the girl’s club atmosphere – I can’t stand that either. Totally does my head in. I just don’t understand how women talk to each other – it never made sense to me.

      Like

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